Saturday, August 15

How Covid-19 is changing the way we worship


Danald (front, centre) launches a tribute banner to frontliners, on behalf of the Anglican Church community, in front of St Thomas’s Cathedral. Minister for Local Government and Housing Dato Sri Dr Sim Kui Hian stands to Danald’s right. — Photo by Elvina Mary Made

IF you have been a regular devotee and worshipper at your church, mosque, temple, or shrine – you’d have noticed a great change ever since March 18, 2020. This week, I’d like to touch on my own personal experience and what I feel will change forever in the way that we all worship in the months and perhaps even years ahead.

In my column this week, I can only write about my own personal experience in the Christian faith. However, I am sure that this will still be in effect during the Recovery Movement Control Order (RMCO) period, which ends on Aug 31, and has affected the way that all of us worship regardless of our faith. It was only on June 20 that all places of worship within the green zones were allowed to resume religious activities albeit with very strict limitations as to the standard operating procedures (SOPs).

The main issues were aimed at limiting the number of worshippers to one-third of the venue capacity; those who are above 70 and below 12 years of age are prohibited as well as those exhibiting any symptoms like fever, cough, respiratory issues, and colds. Attendees must undergo temperature scanning and registration with full contact details, as well as wear masks, practise social distancing, and other guidelines as may be required by the individual parishes.

As a result of all these extremely strict and restrictive conditions, turnouts at the many parishes and churches since June 20 have been at the lowest in recent memory.

I do not foresee much improvement in the increment in numbers even after Aug 31

as worshippers would still be wary and afraid to attend services within such enclosed spaces for as long as two hours or even more.

Since March 15, many churches have offered online Internet services conducted on Sundays and on holy days in the various languages, streaming live services (and available for viewing anytime thereafter) with all the liturgy and rituals, and even the singing of hymns and gospel songs with lyrics displayed. The only missing liturgy being the physical sign of the peace and the Holy Communion. Tithing too has also gone online with the publication of banking details for parishioners to make their tithes.

My mother church, St Thomas’s Cathedral in Kuching, saw the Bishop of the Anglican Church in Sarawak and Brunei, the Rt Rev Datuk Danald Jute initiate the very first online church service at 8.30am on Sunday March 15 with these words from the Bible:

“The Lord is my light and my salvation – whom shall I fear?

The Lord is the stronghold of my life – of whom shall I be afraid? …

For in the day of trouble, he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent and set me high upon a rock” (Psalm 27).

Whilst the online streaming services of the mainstream churches of the major denominations of Anglican, Catholic, Methodist, Borneo Evangelical Mission (BEM), and others follow the traditional liturgies and rituals – thus maintaining their hardcore parishioners and those who are more comfortable and at ease with the same fire and brimstone type of sermons aligned strictly within the rules of the governing bodies, we have seen the mushrooming of many less traditional churches gaining massive popularity, especially among the young and those under 40.

There are quite a number of these in recent years; some more well-known than others; some even making headline news for the wrong reasons (example City Harvest in Singapore and their financial scandal in 2015); and others basking in the limelight of showmanship like Joseph Prince in Singapore. There are even churches that preach the gospel of prosperity – an umbrella term for a group of ideas popular among charismatic preachers in the evangelical tradition – that equates Christian faith with material and, particularly, financial success. It has a long history in American culture, with figures like Joel Osteen, and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, glamorous, flashily-dressed televangelists whose Disneyland-meets-Bethlehem Christian theme park, Heritage USA, was once the third-most-visited site in America.

During a recent serious discussion on where the church is headed now that it is highly likely that the new normal of us all attending church the way we have been doing prior to March 15 will now be history – it was observed that whereas the physical attendance at the brick and mortar churches have dropped drastically; the numbers have not been made up by those who are tuning into the live streaming online services.

Some have just stopped going while others have discovered that they have so many other choices to select from – they will go online, and out of sheer curiosity would cyber surf and search and watch the online services from other churches here and overseas. This observation has produced some rather startling but not unexpected results.

It is believed that many youngsters, especially those between the ages of 18 and 35, are slowly but surely turning away from the traditional churches to those ‘newer, more charismatic churches’ of which a prime example is the Joseph Prince Ministry in Singapore.

Their live online streaming services are what I’d call a ‘Las Vegas-styled’ showcase of gospel songs, uplifting passages from the Bible, and of course it doesn’t hurt that the 57-year-old preacher himself, Joseph Prince, looks like a younger version of Burt Reynolds. He must spend quite a bit on his grooming, as well as his stage costumes – his suits are S$10,000 Armani creations! Born and bred in Perak to a Sikh priest of Indian origin and a Chinese mother, he had his name changed to Joseph Prince in 1990, in anticipation of his ‘born-again’ new identity as a pastor who earns over S$50,000 per month.

Personally, I am very sceptical about such ‘prosperity and stagey’ pastors and would shun such ‘idolatry styled’ preachers, and would treat them in the same category as snake-oil salesmen. But in the real world, with materialism and showmanship as well as man’s inert attraction to all things bright and beautiful – the magnetic appeal of a Joseph Prince to a young Christian is as human a folly as that proverbial apple in the Garden of Eden.

I admit that I am of the old school, I believe in the Holy Trinity and in the Holy Spirit – and all this flash, glitter, showiness, and shallowness of the likes of the New Creation Church, City Harvest, and others of their ilk could never appeal to me.

I urge you all in these troubled times to take care, keep safe, stay home, and be very Covid-19 aware. May God bless us all.

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